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writing tips

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children. -Madeleine L'Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time.

This is my 31st year as a writer, and rarely do I yell at myself for having chosen this job. Yet writing for most of us is hard. It takes patience and time and understanding of the process. You know this if you are a writer-teacher. 

Strategies that helped me most as a writer:

Having one-on-one teacher and writer time. Brief work sessions should focus  on one or two aspects of the current work, not all the problems at once.

Knowing that mainly we teach ourselves to write.

Remembering that writing is slow.  It’s supposed to be like that.  Also, the experience differs from one writer to the next.

Accepting that writing is not as important as re-writing and re-writing again.

Reading the NCTE publication Writing Process Revisited: Sharing Our Stories - An amazing book! 

Reading writers whose work you admire.  

Writing regularly.  Writers thrive on routines. They like to write at the same time of day, in the same place if possible.


Truths that helped me to Teach Writing:


Many students freeze when asked to "Make up a story."  They’ll do better when writing factual pieces (NF =non-fiction).

Writers need to be enthusiastic about their topics, so offer several topics to choose from, whenever possible.

Lists of Stupendous Adjectives, Vigorous Verbs, Descriptive Nouns posted around the room help today's non-readers with vocabulary choices. (e.g., The noun phrase old house offers no picture for readers, whereas weathered gray cottage is more visual.)  Invite students to add words to these lists.

Short assignments usually suffice. (Do you NEED to correct five pages of the same errors?)  Also, students prefer short papers and that’s fine. Of course, older students benefit from learning how to manage a longer paper.


Research papers:


Demonstrate how to take notes on 3x5 cards from reference sources.

Once all research is on cards, put the source books away.

Organize the cards into piles by topic. Each pile is one unit of the paper.

Arrange the piles in logical order, and from that order, construct the outline. (This process works for all kids, especially ones with learning difficulties.)

Young writers learn to love outlines. They are trusty roadmaps for a difficult journey--writing a "real paper." With this method, students use their own words and sentences, not those copied from sources.


Remember to...


Read prose and poetry to your students every day. Listening skills are crucial. 

Ask students to read aloud. (Much new research proves the importance of this.) 

Listen to children's literature on Recorded Books. (You might try Witch-Cat, or Aunt Morbelia and The Screaming Skulls, or Beware The Ravens, Aunt Morbelia-- my books on Recorded Books.)

Perform short plays as skits for the class. (Kids in England do this every week!)

Write original plays and perform for the class.

Turn dialogue from their favorite books into skits to act out.

Add words to your Word Lists faithfully. (Extra credit for students?)

Enjoy as many language experiences as you can whomp up.

Show each student the truth of this saying: Your language will shape your life.


Writing is a craft that can be learned, not a gift for a precious few. 

Nearly everyone can learn to write well!


Booklist for Teachers of Writing


On Writing Well, Wm. Zinsser

The Elements of Style, Strunk and White

Write Right!: A Desktop Digest of Punctuation, Grammar, and Style, J. Venolia

Writing Process Revisited: Sharing Our Stories, Ed. by D. Barnes, K. Morgan, and K. Weinhold, for NCTE

Bird by Bird, A. Lamott

Writing It Right: How Published Authors Revise and Sell Their Stories, Sandy Asher (**on sale now at for right.html

A Writer's Time, K. Atchity

Writers on Writing, Ed. J. Winokur (hilarious quotes)

After THE END: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman, 1993

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?  Sandy Asher (ideas from kids' favorite authors)


How About a Writer In Residence at Your School?


Most children's writers enjoy working with students. You can ask local librarians and other teachers for recommendations, or work through websites such as the Children's Book Guild of Washington, D.C. Also, consult The Children's Literature Newsletter at Many writers have websites of their own, as I do.   When you find your author, have a specific talk about who does what and when.  A contract is the most professional idea.


What Would A Writer DO for us?


Teachers rarely have enough time to write, sad to say, and only rarely have had worthwhile courses in writing themselves. Yet we expect them to teach writing...somehow.  But writers normally write every day.  So the first thing your writer could do is to help teachers polish their own skills; if teachers are not excited about writing, no one else will be.

  • Your guest writer should focus on mutually-agreed-upon projects, e.g., Illuminate the writing process so that everyone realizes first drafts are always lousy...for all writers!  

  • Teach organization, fact-gathering, and factual writing.

  • Teach creative, imaginative stuff for those so inclined.

  • Explain English grammar...or sentence structure...or paragraphing.

Your writer should be able to meet the particular needs of your class, and help you turn writing into the stimulating process it is meant to be.  


How would we pay for a writer-in-residence?


The fee you pay a writer varies, but remember that writers are hired as specialists. The school itself was designed by a specialist, an architect with a hefty fee. Surely, your writer will cost less than the architect

*** Often the PTA will hold a book sale managed by parents and teachers, so that the school reaps the profits, which are enough to  support a writer in the schools...every year!

  • Teachers and principals write grants that supply money for writers and other artists. For instance, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has grant money to support a science writer in your school.

  • Banks or major businesses will often donate money to a high-profile project like Writer-In-Residence programs.

  • Just think of the money that the Band Boosters produce.

  • Inspire an Arts Boosters Club, and they will do the same for you.

Teachers who have worked with a writer in residence have lots to say.

"You took away my guilt," one Virginia teacher told me.

"The kids and I all enjoy writing now, because I'm more relaxed."

 Another one said: "Now I'm a writer myself, and it has made all the difference in how I teach."

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